Foreign Policy Blogs

Second Drug Tunnel Discovered in Otay-Mesa: So What?

drug-tunnelThat’s the question.

Does the discovery of a second, highly sophisticated (construction costs estimated at more than $1 million) drug tunnel mean the US is pushing the cartels back, or that we’re hitting traffickers where it hurts the most–in their bank accounts?

Working, as usual, on an inside ‘tip,’ the same special multi-agency taskforce (agents from ICE, Border Patrol, DEA and regional law enforcement) that bagged and tagged tunnel #1 on November 4 in San Diego unearthed tunnel #2 barely two weeks later. The “Thanksgiving Day Tunnel” is almost half a mile long and stretches from a shaft discovered under a kitchen in a  house in Tijuana, Mexico to exits in two separate warehouses in Otay Mesa, CA.

Feds also seized another 20 tons of marijuana (at $800. per pound that comes out to roughly $32 million). US agents arrested three suspects in the US–Mexican authorities arrested five more in Mexico. Whether these are low or high-level suspects, we don’t know.

The most interesting aspect of the 2nd tunnel discovery was speculation by ICE/SAC Mike Unzueta that an ‘ongoing investigation’ suggests both the November 3/4th tunnel and the ‘Thanksgiving Day Tunnel’ were constructed, not by the Tijuana Cartel, which has controlled the Tijuana-San Diego corridor for some time, but by the Guzman organization, reputedly more violent, if that can be believed, than the rival cartels and criminal gangs currently turning northern Mexico into an American killing ground:

Federal investigators believe both underground passageways were under the control of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is run by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most wanted drug lord.

This isn’t new news.

El Chapo

The link ICE posits between the November drug tunnels and cartel power shifts is interesting, but any agent who’s worked the southwest border for a while already knows that if a tunnel or any other kind of operation is high-end (expensive, structurally sophisticated, professionally planned, etc), it’s almost certainly the work of “El Chapo” (listed by  Forbes magazine as “the 60th of the 68 most powerful  people in the world”)–no one else has the money, the skill or the contacts to construct the kind of high-tech tunnels discovered on November 3 and on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s only the media–not a special, dedicated tunnel team–who might believe the identification of Guzman as the tunnel mastermind qualifies as breaking news.

Here are the facts:

  • ICE indicates 125 drug tunnels have been discovered since the 1990s.
  • Seventy-five tunnels have been unearthed in the last 4 years and 25 shut down.
  • The most sophisticated drug tunnels so far unearthed (including the longest at 7.10 of a mile uncovered in Operation Catacomb, 1990) are estimated to have cost between $1-2 million . . . small change, when you consider that annual revenue from Mexico-US Drug Trade is estimated at anywhere from $40 billion upward.
  • Conclusion: traffickers can afford to build and lose hundreds of drug tunnels per year, along with millions in drugs and bulk cash, and still come out ahead–these losses are merely factored in as ‘the cost of doing business.’

If tunnel busts are going to hurt narco-profits–the cartel drug industry–they must generate investigations that imperil the billions of laundered drug dollars wired into US and international bank accounts every year.

Traffickers don’t construct cross border tunnels specifically or solely to move drugs–any illegal product that generates big profits will do.

¡Es el Dinero, Estúpido!

Take Tunnel #2–authorities seized 20 tons of marijuana on one day, Thanksgiving–at $1.6 million per ton, we’re talking roughly 32 million dollars worth of pot.

Federal agents also estimate the tunnel was up and running for at least one month–so three to five runs per week of 20 tons ($100-160 million) translates into a little under or over half a trillion dollars in dope that may have moved through that tunnel during the single month before its discovery.

And that’s a modest appraisal, given the solid, sophisticated construction of tunnel #2, the fact that it may have been operative for more than a month (engineers or a local contractor could easily test the concrete to determine its origin–Mexico or US–and its age), its dual exits into the US, and the work ethic of traffickers focused on making the most money possible in the least amount of time.

Tunnel Treasure

Operation Catacomb, the 1990 tunnel investigation described in my last post, produced the most substantive investigative results to date, and given its estimated length of operation, its value to the cartel (again, the Guzman organization) was also substantive:

Operation Catacomb was a wide-ranging investigation, not a one-time hit. In the end, agents estimated  the  Douglas-Agua PrietaTunnel had been up and running for at least six months. Sources close to the case estimate more than 144 tons of cocaine entered the US through the Douglas-Agua Prieta Tunnel-if that is so, then  the value of the cocaine traveling through the tunnel into the US over the course of 6 months, estimated at $20,000 USD per kilo, would exceed $2.3 billion USD.

The key to making tunnel discoveries important steps in a much larger counter-drug initiative is using the investigative information they may yield to undercut the massive criminal revenues that flow through these corridors, no matter what form that flow takes–marijuana, coke, meth-amphetamine, trafficking in illegal workers or sex slaves, you name it.

But going after the big money, the only reason criminals get up and go to work each day, means more effort, more cooperation and less collusion between traffickers and their enablers on both sides of the border–a big order for too many reasons.

Too Many Obstacles

First, you have a criminal confederacy that spreads out on both sides of the US-Mexico border like the inkblots Hollywood directors once used on movie screens to depict the dark, fast-flowing stain of Nazi aggression or Communist conquest.

Crime can be good business, especially in places that are economically bust and in times that are economically depressed.

Think Mexico and the US.

We’re not alone.

The same dynamic is at work Central Asia and beyond, where tribes, regions, and surrounding states are far more concerned about riding the flood tide of criminal dollars spilling out of Afghanistan than they are about escaping the deluge.

For industry, businesspeople, small-town bureaucrats, bankers and police officers, short-term affiliations with folks you’d never invite home to dinner happen all the time. Drug tunnels lead to the construction of ‘tunnel towns,” where every conceivable form of  complicity and corruption spreads indiscriminately and with viral speed.

Some people become willing, full-time partners-in-crime, hoping that their roles as ‘niche players’ (white collar bankers, real estate agents, accountants, track rental managers, etc) may leave them room to keep moving between various criminal syndicates and the legitimate world of commerce.

We call it collusion, a disincentive to tamper with criminal boom times–an incentive to maintain and grow criminal enterprise where or when reward tops risk.

Collusion is rampant, from top to bottom in border tunnel towns, throughout law enforcement organizations and industry on both sides of the border, and throughout the ranks of military and high-ranking government officials with too few degrees of separation between them and the drug industry–people whose names and influence are protected by the folks they’re in a position to hurt, help, and/or protect.

Of course, this is the way it’s always worked (Gibbon’s Decline and Fall), and while WikiLeaks might be  throwing its considerable e-weight against centuries of unspoken cultural and quasi-legal tradition, some suggest the code of silence that keeps collusion moving smoothly seems to be embedded in human DNA.

The next reason the cartels are winning: piecemeal discoveries (one-time, one news cycle tunnels) and aborted investigations that happen when the possible political ramifications (see above) of those investigations stand to impede the smooth ‘facilitation’ of billions of dollars in legal cross-border trade–no one is going to mess with NAFTA.

We can have mutual self-screening and compliance agreements, industry promises to self-police and international honor codes galore, but no one is going to bruise, much less kill, this golden goose.

Investigations also lose steam when stymied by malfeasance and incompetence, when investigators whose stake in their own careers is larger than their commitment to the law engage in lukewarm, as opposed to hot pursuit, or when agents without the necessary skills are assigned to lead an investigation (hmmm).

Reason number three: cartels also (and always) win when only one side is really investigating, when the United States, for example, signs a treaty in 1998 with Mexico that prevents US authorities from conducting covert and/or unilateral enforcement investigations (meaning without the full cooperation of the Mexican government, military, or police–in whatever combination) when there is reason to believe members of the Mexican establishment might be implicated.

Waiting for Mexico to Lead the Way

History and hard experience have demonstrated to US law enforcement that cooperation and support from Mexican authorities is not always guaranteed, and if you press your ear to certain doors in DC, almost all marked ‘politically incorrect,’ you will hear reports up and down the Potomac that gain credence with each new act of violence on the southwest border–that distinctions between legal and illegal in Mexico no longer apply. That the economic power of Mexico’s cartels have suborned that nation’s institutions and left the citizens of Mexico defenseless, without a working judicial system or viable executive leadership.

It’s a bleak picture, one handed, in fact, just last week to a highly placed intelligence official in Washington, a career bureaucrat who, like any federal employee who wants to remain hopeful, as well as employed, found the assessment hard to swallow.

He’s an educated man, but education, as we all know, is not an antidote for denial. So let’s try this (a kind of Miller Analogies Test): Mexico is to the United States what Afghanistan is to Russia (maybe worse). How would you feel about living in Russia, especially in one of its former border states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Georgia?

Ask your neighbors in Texas, Arizona, and California.

OK. Back to tunnels and the part they could play in true knock-out investigations: tunnels, like any piece of evidence, are starting points US investigators could and should use to trace trafficking operations back to their sources (through the tunnel, up the ladder, into the ‘rec room,’ kitchen, shower, chicken-coop or whatever on the Mexican side, to the photos, the checkbooks, the bank account information, the inevitable chain of increasingly important informants, to the wire remitters, the banks, and the trajectory of payments that spew from these accounts into the pockets of beneficiaries (so far unnamed) in Mexico, the US, and across the world.

This is the mission (if they choose to take it) for US law enforcement–to take the point on serious drug trafficking  investigations many believe Mexico is no longer in a position to lead.

This is the sticking point for politicians, diplomats, political appointees, the US-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, and businesspeople anywhere who make their livings via cross-border trade. Heavy hitters. The idea that US law enforcement might take off its gloves and get into the ring for real. That when US citizens and US security are threatened, we might lead the charge instead of waiting for Mexico to sound the bugle, a cry that may never come.

Yes, there are counter-arguments. The United States provides the cartels with an irresistible market for cocaine, marijuana, and the rest. The laws of the United States work in favor of those who choose to purchase semiautomatic weapons from gun shops along the southwest border.

Both of these arguments have weight. But the question is whether rebuttals of this kind are pertinent given an enforcement approach the US not only endorses, but on which it also spends billions each year. Washington may pay lip service to the  notion of reducing demand, but politicians also know that serious talk about ending enforcement efforts might well mean an end to their careers as well. Americans are not going to beat their swords into plowshares while bodies of US citizens continue to turn up in mass graves in Mexico.

So the only relevant question here centers on the quality and outcome of the investigations taxpayers are funding–in the belief that Washington is doing everything within its means to prevent Mexico’s drugs, its drug war, and the corruption that travels with cartel crime, from spilling over onto US soil and into our economy, our political system, and our society.

It seems unlikely Mexico is going to win its war with the cartels.

Maybe it’s time to ask if we can win ours.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.